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What’s that in your background? How to Avoid Visual Clutter when Videoconferencing

December 8, 2021

What is Visual Clutter? Literally, it is everything we leave out on our countertops, surfaces, and shelves. What makes it appear as clutter is how it is stored, what it is next to, and its size. Whether it is temporarily placed where it is, or casually stacked “out of the way” but insight, leaning against something, or squeezed in-between items, visual clutter is all those items of multiple sizes, shapes, colours, and styles. There is absolutely nothing wrong with visual clutter, indeed it is an art form to get it right. But, sometimes, it detracts, can make a space feel messy, and professionally it can impact how we are perceived.


Visual Clutter: Why it matters

Today, I want to discuss visual clutter as it relates to the digital world of video-conferencing; how to control it, and the impact it might be having on you professionally. The subject has been front and centre for me currently because of some clients I am working with. Each one of them has had to use cameras to connect virtually with their clients and they were all shocked over what the camera revealed.

One client, a trauma therapist who works with at-risk and abused youth, came to me because she felt she had compromised her own privacy. As she said “I love the work I do, I know I make a big difference in their lives and potentially to the future that awaits them. As a therapist, I must always keep a clear boundary with my clients. The trust I create with them is important to their feeling they have a safe space with me. But I am not their friend. My personal life must not enter this relationship. When lockdown happened, I agreed to do video conferencing. Actually, I thought it was a great solution. I choose a neutral spot in my home – a corner with white walls. I honestly thought it had nothing personal in it. But occasionally my cat would appear, or something would be in eyeshot. When I went back to in-person group sessions, they had all created their own versions of where I lived, the life I have, and my tastes. I was horrified.” A line had been crossed for my client that she could not undo.

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Being Aware of Your Surroundings

Daniel Levitin, in his book, The Organized Mind, explains “the brain habituates to things that don’t change – this is why a friend can walk into your kitchen and notice that the refrigerator has developed an odd humming noise, something you no longer notice”. Our brains naturally desensitize to things in our environments that remain constant, don’t change, and are not moved. My client genuinely felt she had created a neutral backdrop for her videoconferencing, a place where her clients would focus on the therapy and not her personal life. We are all blind to seeing how our spaces appear to outsiders.


You may think the background behind you is fine so long as it is tidy, but it does say a lot about who you are as a person. It gives the viewer a glimpse into how you live in your own personal life.


Sanitizing Station

Another client I am working with is a daycare centre for infants and toddlers. They are now allowed to open to full capacity. To increase enrollments, without having indoor tours of their facility, they decided to create a virtual tour offering for potential new families. They hired a company to film the virtual tour, however, when they saw the end result, they were shocked… the daycare looked cluttered, overwhelmed, and disorganized. The new protocols they must follow for screening everyone entering, sanitizing, all the health notices they must post on their walls, the PPE they must wear, store, and have on hand, the toys that must be constantly rotated and cleaned, rinsed, and dried; all of it together made their amazing 5 star rated centre look substandard.

Until they saw with their own eyes what the camera captured, they had absolutely no idea how cluttered and disorganized their facility appeared. What is important to point out here is that the daycare was not disorganized. It appeared disorganized. Their focus over the last two years was on the babies and children in their care. They never noticed all the visual clutter that had been collected.


The Camera Doesn’t Just See You, It Sees Everything Around You Too.

Cable Management Kit

As I mentioned earlier, our brains naturally habituate things in our peripheral vision. Cameras, and strangers, cannot do this. That is why, when on conference calls, you literally can’t help but notice what books are on the bookshelf behind the individual you are attempting to listen to. The camera does not filter out the background, the camera cannot, and our brains cannot help but notice, they are hardwired to notice.  As far as our brains are concerned, it’s a level playing field; the speaker and their background are seen equally.

What is visual clutter in the context of videoconferencing? It is ANYTHING in your background that draws focus away from you. That can include ornate wallpaper too by the way, not just dirty dishes or the cat sleeping in the window behind you. What you are trying to communicate is either diluted or demoted when your background competes for attention. You may cherish the family pictures hanging on the wall but the person you are talking to on the other side of the camera may find them distracting – either consciously or unconsciously. Homes are personal spaces, so you will naturally be sharing more than usual when working from home. Curating your background on video business calls will give you control over how you are perceived professionally, not just personally.

Here are some tips to keep your videoconference calls focused and professional when working from home.

  1. Keep It Simple – Less is More

Have as plain a background as possible, one that is simple and reflects you professionally. Find one area in your home where you can control the environment behind you. It doesn’t have to be a large space, just somewhere that you can use each time you are on a call so that the background remains consistent.

Take a photo of what others will see in your background and remove anything that does not support or enhance your “brand”. Even if your clients know you are a solopreneur, they do not need to be reminded that you are working from home.

Here are some ideas of what to have in the background.

  • Uncluttered bookcase with books
  • Plants or flowers – real or artificial
  • An open cabinet to place neutral decorative pieces, awards, or product samples.
  • Plain wall with artwork.

Here are some “No! No!’s”

  • No beds. Doesn’t matter how beautiful it is, or how well it is made. Do not sit on the bed or have it in shot.
  • No clutter. It’s distracting and can send the wrong message about you. This includes gadgets, technology, piles of files, dirty dishes, shopping, trinkets, children’s art, or overly personal items.
  • No wires and cables. Use cable covers so they blend in with the wall.
  1. Don’t Leave Too Much Space Behind You.

 For your background to remain just that… in the background…  you should give yourself at least 3 feet. Any closer (unless your background is simply a white wall) and the background will be too much in focus. Any further than 6 feet and you might have too much on show, and it can become distracting (like a kitchen or living room), not to mention that there is also a higher chance that a person or pet in your household will walk into shot while on the call.

  1. Be Careful of Virtual Backgrounds.
Green Screen

Virtual backgrounds are a great idea, but be careful, if there is an uneven background behind you (ie. corner of wall, varying depths of items in the background etc.) you will likely have choppiness and your image will have areas that are pixilated as you move your head or hands. One way around this is to invest in a green screen. I have seen some great ones that attach to the back of your chair. You could also use a peel and stick green screen wallpaper. It all depends on the kind of space you are working in and your budget. Green screens can turn just about any spot into an office – even the car or your local cafe. They are worth investing in if you do a lot of video conferencing.

The only video conferencing software that does not support green screens is Google Meet, however, they do allow you to blur your background – which really is just as good an option.

It might be fun to use a fun tropical background when chatting with family and friends but it might be too distracting for a work call. Remember, the focus is you.

  1. Do a Screen Test.

 Once your background is organized and set up, and you have everything where you think it should be, do a videoconference “screen test” with a friend or family member. This will help you get a proper perspective on how someone looking through a camera will see you and your background. It will enable you to make last-minute tweaks and optimizations. Then when it is all set, take another photo and refer to this photo next time you are about to go on a videoconference call. It is a great way to avoid the inevitable “clutter blindness” that will naturally happen. Remember… perception is reality.


And in the meantime, if you are looking for help with staying organized while working from home, or even getting ready for a new pet, please check out the following blogs.

Free Professional Organizing Advice for you!

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